Travel back to Ancient Greece in virtual reality
Press release issued: 30 June 2023
A new virtual reality (VR) app which takes users on a journey back in time to Ancient Greece where they are able to experience first-hand what it was like to consult with the Greek god Zeus at the Oracle of Dodona has been developed by a team of academics led by the University of Bristol.
The aim of the project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is to enhance historical understanding of ancient Greek oracle consultation and to explore the role of VR technology in classrooms, museums and cultural settings. It also aims to provide insights and a richer understanding of sensory processing and brain activity in users of VR.
An oracle was a site where ancient Greek men and women asked the gods to answer questions about the past, the present and the future often writing down their questions on lead tablets – many of which have survived to the present day.
Dodona in Epirus, north western Greece, was one of the oldest oracle sites dating back to the second millennium BCE with some of the earliest accounts describing Dodona as an oracle of Zeus. It was considered second only to the more famous Oracle of Delphi in reputation and remained an important religious sanctuary until the rise of Christianity during the late Roman era.
The VR experience draws on ancient evidence to imagine a visit to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona in 465 BCE. Users can choose one of three pathways to meet other pilgrims and hear their stories, before they are able to pose their own questions to the priestesses of Zeus.
Project lead Professor Esther Eidinow from the University of Bristol’s Department of Classics and Ancient History said: “Oracles helped ancient society to cope with uncertainty and risk. We are focusing on the oracle at Dodona because thousands of questions have survived from the site, written on lead tablets.
“They show that the oracle was consulted not only by community leaders, but also by ordinary men and women, including enslaved people. Studying Dodona can help us to understand their experiences better: both how they responded to uncertainty, and how they related to the gods.
“This project can help us to better understand both ancient and modern experiences —ancient experiences of a religious ritual and modern experiences of an immersive historical environment.”
While creating the app, the team consulted with a range of potential users involving them in its design and development. This included sessions with visitors at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Professor Kirsten Cater from Bristol’s Department of Computer Science, said: “In order to create the best VR experience we involved teachers, students, and museums in the design process through co-production, as well as supporting them as users of the final product.
“This approach could have significant findings for enhancing the design and effectiveness of digital cultural experiences, specifically immersive experiences, for use in museum/heritage and educational contexts.”
Dr Michael Proulx from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, added: “This creative study of ancient history will allow us to make cutting-edge advances in the psychological use of modern technology.
“In examining the experience of an oracle, our methods are revealing what it is like to feel present in that place and moment - almost like a form of time travel to better understand the past.
“This will also help with future VR development as we'll have a richer understanding of the role of multisensory processing and integration to help make VR seem real. The nature of the oracle experience, being something novel for modern people, provides a good basis for creating other virtual experiences outside of our daily lives.”
The multi-disciplinary team involved in developing the app and experimenting with it also includes Professor Hugh Bowden from King’s College London’s Department of Classics and Dr Quinton Deeley from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London; Dr Richard Cole (Classics and Ancient History) and Dr. Chris Bevan (Computer Science), Bristol; Dr Crescent Jicol and Emilia Tor from Bath University (Psychology); and Elisa Brann and Rukmini Roy (IoPPN, KCL).
The Virtual Reality Oracle experience is available for free download across multiple platforms. A version compatible with Google Android-based smartphones can be downloaded from the Google Play store and combined with widely available ‘cardboard’ VR headsets to provide a low-cost entry-level virtual reality experience.
Users of the Meta range of VR headsets (e.g. Quest / Quest 2) can download the app directly from the Meta Store. Finally, a 360-degree video version that is compatible with desktop computers and tablets can be found online via YouTube. For more information and additional support, visit http://www.vroracle.co.uk/experience
About the Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) project, funded by the AHRC
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the VRO is a collaboration between the University of Bristol, University of Bath, King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, in partnership with the Ephorate of Antiquities, Ioannina, Greece; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and We the Curious; with support from schools including Badminton School, Bishop Thomas Grant School, London, Bristol Grammar School, Guildford High School, and Augsburg University, Germany.
The VRO project is a collaborative research project that uses VR to imagine the experiences of individuals consulting the ancient oracle of Zeus at Dodona, NW Greece. Through user analysis, the project is investigating how the VRO can help to advance understanding of:
- The likely operation of the oracle and individual experiences of historical oracular consultation. Using a range of ancient evidence, and specialist insight, the VRO explores the various possible methods of consulting the oracle, helping historians to better understand and differentiate among these mechanisms, and seeking to create a more detailed comprehension of the broader ancient context of divination and of ritual activity in Ancient Greek society.
- The design and deployment of multi-sensory VR experiences for educational purposes. It has developed the VRO in close collaboration with teachers and students at schools and universities, and museum curators, in order to ensure that the product is aligned with public interest, educational needs and museum display requirements. It has involved teachers, students, and museum curators as part of the research team, first in designing the VRO and then in using the VRO in classroom practice, and museum displays and activities.
- The effects on brain function and the senses of the experience of using the VRO. Through analysis of user responses by psychologists and neuroscientists, the project team is gauging the sensory and cognitive effects of oracular consultation; exploring the role of multisensory processing and integration in the experience of VR; and establishing effective design parameters for immersive VR environments.